Grey. That’s the best way to sum up the first ten days in July. The weather was dreich which was unfortunate as I hadn’t factored that into my work schedule! I’m normally dashing about the island trying to survey here, there and everywhere but that’s difficult when the mist is down and visibility is nil. With my seabird surveys temporarily suspended, I helped out with ‘visitor services’ as we had a temporary ranger and first time volunteer on island. Much of my job is lone working so I enjoy these moments of interacting with visitors and different people who join our team in the busy summer season. After helping the Ranger with the final cruise ship of the year, I left island for ten days for what felt like a well earned break having been on island since early April. It’s unusual for me to go so early but I had to try and squeeze in some time off before the Leach’s Storm-petrels were due to hatch but be back in time for the Puffin survey.
I came back keen to land on Dun only for the weather to stop ‘play’ and it was days before the sea state was favourable to permit a landing. Boats flocked to the island on the first calm sea but heavy downpours saturated the ground which would’ve made accessing the landing site on Dun rather tricky (read treacherous!). The sea was like a mill pond the following day. Although it rained early on the sun shone temporarily drying the rocks just enough for me to land with a simple hop out of the zodiac on to the barnacle encrusted seaweed covered rocks.
I had three hours to survey which really isn’t long to check 100 burrows, extract and measure chicks, record details of the burrow and collect fish samples. Some of the chicks were hiding out in super long burrows well beyond the reach of my probably below-average length arm. However! The genius idea of using a stem of vegetation to ‘encourage’ chicks to walk up the side of the burrow and into my hand worked a treat.
As expected, many of the chicks were BIG with a feisty attitude while others were hardly more than fluff balls. It’s a survey of surprise; if there's a stinky latrine at the burrow entrance then you can be fairly confident there is (or has been) a chick inside, but if not you never really know what you might find. Often you’ll feel a chick and be able to pull it out without any bother at all. Other times expletives are uttered as an adult takes a firm grip of usually the most fleshy and sensitive part of a finger (how do they know how to do that?!). Occasionally you’ll only just be able to tickle a chick before it dashes off down a side tunnel or further back into the burrow. Then there’s the odd time when your hand hits a squidgy mess and you know you’ve come across something dead, which is unfortunate for the burrow occupant and not terribly pleasant for the surveyor either!
It was a busy day at Hirta when I went over to Dun. An RCL arrived early and unloaded with perfect precision some much needed supplies and fuel. Most of the regular day boats arrived with people who had been waiting days to travel out to see the Islands. QinetiQ were also busy taking delivery of some rather large containers that arrived as low slung loads on a helicopter. These sorts of trips are only considered after much planning and everything went well and we marveled at the skills of the pilot.
Unfortunately, I have zero good news to report on the Leach’s Storm-petrel nest boxes. Before I left for my holiday there were three occupied boxes; one bird was definitely incubating an egg but the other two I wasn’t sure about. Leach’s don’t tolerate disturbance so when I first discover a bird I make sure to back off quickly and delay the next check to minimise interactions with the nest site. This cautious approach has worked in the past as we’ve had up to three birds occupy the nest boxes and successfully fledge a chick. Maybe the weather has played a role this year, maybe the boxes aren’t quite right and maybe there are other factors involved. It’s hugely disappointing whatever the cause and I’ll miss not having fluffies like this one below to check on this season.
The eggs from both Arctic Skua nests hatched in early July. The chicks are mobile almost immediately and soon wander within their territory. I visited every few days to monitor the fate of the chicks but the parent birds were ever alert and weren't shy with their swoops and foot slaps to the head and face!
We’ve had the usual mixture of birds on island for this time of year but I seem to not have taken any photos of them. For once, the female eider that tucks herself away near the Feather Store has kept the same number of ducklings for several weeks suffering no predation from skuas, gulls or seals. The ducklings are getting big now and won’t be able to tuck themselves under their mum’s wing too much longer.
July has actually been a fairly busy month for marine sightings with Minke Whale, Basking Shark and Orca seen on 10 days of the month. The sea wasn't unusually calm and we didn't have any more people on island or on boats actively looking for marine creatures so maybe an increase in sightings reflects a genuine increase in the number of animals in the area. For some species, this could be linked to a large plankton bloom off the west coast of The Hebrides.
Work Party 3 left on the 1 July and on their journey via Boreray they had amazing views of Orca hunting a seal and throwing it several times into the air.
Being in such close proximity gave the WP a great opportunity to take photographs. There were some excellent shots of dorsal fins and patches which together can be used to identify members of a pod as they are the human equivalent of a finger print and unique to every individual. These images were used in a collaborative effort between ‘Kilda Cruises’, Austin Taylor (WP3), the ‘Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’ and ‘Icelandic Orcas’ to identify one of the pod. The female – known as T-38 in the Iceland community and Number 12 in the Northern Community - is the oldest female on record to travel between the two communities, was last seen in Iceland in 2013 and was sighted earlier this year on the east coast of the UK. It’s amazing how far these animals travel and how they separate and rejoin at various times of the year.
And finally. Perhaps you, the reader, would like to get involved in the 'Sounds of Our Shores' project - a collaboration between the The National Trust, National Trust for Scotland and the British Library? If you live next to, or plan on visiting the coast why not grab your phone and record the sounds you hear to help us make the first ever UK coastal sound map. It's about what's personal to you - the sounds could be of a busy seabird colony, waves crashing on a shingle shore, seals singing in cave, children playing on a beach or simply someone wrestling with a deck-chair! The recordings will be hosted on the British Library website and could be used to create a new piece of music for release in February 2016.
It's not difficult to do and all you need is a smart phone, tablet or other handheld recorder. I tried to record from various sites on Hirta but the force 6 winds were a bit of an issue! I figured a homemade wind baffle was the answer so I made a mount out of cardboard and added on a piece of sponge, it worked a treat!